Saturday, November 26, 2011

Review - The Descendents

The Descendants, Alexander Payne's eagerly anticipated followup to Sideways, tells a sad, drawn out tale of grief and growth with a mellow Hawaiian flavour.
George Clooney plays Matt King, a landowner from Oahu whose wife is in a terminal coma following a boating accident. With his two daughters Alex and Scotty (Shailene Woodely and Amara Miller) struggling to cope in their own unique ways, and with a pending business transaction that would make Matt and his extended family very wealthy at a moral cost, the stress has already reached a smothering level. The discovery that his wife was cheating on him with a slick realtor is only the grain of salt that tips Matt's scale in the direction of (for once in life) taking action, setting him a personal mission to confront his wife's lover in the hopes of finding some kind of closure – or maybe something else entirely.

Plenty of critics have sounded off on The Descendants as a triumph on par with Sideways, but for whatever reason, something about this film did not ring true for me. Maybe it was the unevenness of the dramatic and comedic elements. Maybe it was the awkward beats in the editing. Maybe it was the constant interjection of those soothing acoustic tunes on the soundtrack which, pleasant though they may be, persistently undermined the drama Payne was trying to convey. Maybe it was a combination of these things and more. I get the feeling that there's a lot of genuine emotion to be felt from this movie, but I was just not feeling it.

The cast felt somewhat inconsistent. Perhaps you could chalk this up to the way the characters were written, or to direction more than anything else, but few of the actors gave performances that held me 100 % of the time. Clooney, of course, is the important exception. He's very good as a man who doesn't understand how to express his sorrow. Shailene Woodley has some strong moments as his embittered daughter, and Robert Forster nails his two short scenes as the blame-laying father in law. Otherwise, the movie usually comes off as plain.

**1/2 out of ****


  1. I agree with you.
    It was emotionally drained and the comedy was cartoonish. The whole deal with the Sid character was off-putting (and redundant to the narrative).
    Judy Greer's final scene in the hospital was so immature.
    And I think more than everything, it's how un-sympathetic Matt King is that doesn't let the film work. I mean, on paper, yes. A strong performance from Clooney in the role of a man who's been cheated on, has kids and a dying wife to deal with and a huge financial decision. We're supposed to feel for this character, but I just didn't. Is it maybe because we don't see at all how his life was before all this commotion? Or maybe that even when his past life is alluded to, it just doesn't make us feel any empathy for him.

  2. The key word here is "empathy" versus "sympathy".

    I did feel badly for Matt King, but so what? Sympathy is easy to achieve. Empathy is what moves a viewer; being able to put one's self in a character's shoes and feel what they feel. Like you, I could not feel any empathy for him or his daughter. I felt emotionally distanced.

    Being dropped into his grief-stricken situation right off the bat might have had something to do with it, but I still think his character could have been made more relatable.